BU Responds to NIH Funding Clarification Request after False Stories about NEIDL’s COVID Work

Original article from The Brink by The Brink Staff

Confirms University did fund headline-making study and that researchers will update paper citations

Boston University has responded to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) request for more information about how researchers cited funding in a COVID-19 study paper that sparked international headlines in mid-October.

The research, conducted at the University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), looked at why the Omicron variant seemed to make people less sick than those infected with the original coronavirus strain. In a preprint paper outlining their findings, BU scientists said they hoped their efforts would lay the groundwork for future targeted therapeutic interventions. But a series of flawed media reports accused them of manufacturing a more lethal version of the virus—even though they had actually made a less dangerous version. The University and its researchers were quick to refute the false claims, with Ronald B. Corley, NEIDL director and BU Aram V. Chobanian & Edward Avedisian School of Medicine chair of microbiology, telling The Brink that the reports totally misrepresented the study and took its findings “out of context for the purposes of sensationalism.”

After a flurry of stories questioning how the work was funded and overseen, the NIH’s Office of Extramural Research wrote to BU asking for clarification on whether researchers had correctly applied agency award citation guidelines—which cover how to acknowledge the agency in articles and press releases—in their preprint paper. Although the study had been funded by Boston University, the scientists had noted the federal agency’s earlier support in the development of foundational technology, systems, and platforms used in the research. In an October 20 letter to the University, the NIH asked Gloria Waters, BU vice president and associate provost for research, to outline the decision by the study’s authors to cite “the 5 NIH grants in the preprint and what relationship those grants have to the experiment(s) described there.” The letter referenced 2021 guidance on acknowledging federal funding.

Waters replied that the BU researchers were correct to acknowledge two past NIH instrumentation grants—which had supported the earlier purchase of equipment for future shared studies. But she also said they had erred in citing the other three. In each of the latter cases, Waters said that while the research that led to the latest paper drew upon expertise and information from previous NIH-funded studies, the new work was funded by the University and not the federal agency. She said the University would ask the study authors to post an updated version of the preprint study to clarify the use of the instrumentation grants and remove the three unnecessary citations.

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